On October 31, 2022, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decided Ramirez v. Martin[i], in which the court of appeals examined whether an officer violated the Fourth Amendment when he shoved a suspect, who was at the moment compliant but moments earlier led the police on a high-speed chase and then failed to follow verbal commands, to the ground causing the suspect to sustain a significant cut above his eye. The relevant facts of the case are as follows:

On the night of April 14, 2019, police officers Brad Hanks and Natausha Swavey attempted to pull over Mucio Ramirez for swerving in traffic and having a broken taillight. Instead of stopping, Ramirez led officers on a mile-and-a-half chase. Hanks and Swavey called for backup, informing dispatch they were in felony pursuit of a vehicle. Although Ramirez stopped for traffic lights, Hanks cautioned: “I don’t want to approach him because he may be trying to bait us.” Ramirez eventually stopped his vehicle on an unlit, residential street. Hanks and Swavey stepped out of their police cruiser, firearms and flashlights drawn, and Hanks began verbally engaging Ramirez.

Officer Christopher Martin, along with other officers, then arrived on the scene. Hanks instructed Ramirez to place his hands outside the car window, but Ramirez instead exited the vehicle and turned towards the officers. Hanks commanded Ramirez to turn away, slowly walk backwards, and drop to his knees. Ramirez initially complied but then abruptly stood up. The officers commanded Ramirez to get back on his knees, and he complied after several demands. At this point, Ramirez remained uncuffed, had not been searched, and officers had not yet checked his car for other passengers.

With Ramirez back in the kneeling position, Martin and Swavey were directed to secure Ramirez, so the other officers could safely approach and clear Ramirez’s vehicle. The plan was for Martin and Swavey to each grab one of Ramirez’s arms, and then take him to the ground and handcuff him. But as they approached Ramirez, Swavey paused to holster her weapon while Martin grabbed Ramirez’s arm and pushed him to the ground. Ramirez collapsed forward and his head hit the pavement, resulting in a significant cut above his right eye. Ramirez was later charged with a felony for evading arrest and a misdemeanor for driving while intoxicated.[ii]

Ramirez, the Plaintiff-Appellant, filed suit and argued that Officer Martin used excessive force under the Fourth Amendment when he shoved him to the ground, causing a cut above his eye.  The district court granted the officer’s motion for qualified immunity finding that the officer did not act unreasonably.   Ramirez appealed the grant of qualified immunity to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

On appeal, the court noted that, to defeat Officer Martin’s motion for qualified immunity, Ramirez must show (1) that Officer Martin violated the Fourth Amendment and (2) that the law was clearly established such that court precedent would have made it clear to any reasonable officer that the conduct at issue, in this case, violated the Fourth Amendment.

The court of appeals then set out to examine the first prong of the qualified immunity analysis, specifically, whether the officer violated the Fourth Amendment when he shoved Ramirez, who was at the moment compliant but had moments earlier led police on a high-speed vehicle pursuit, and was initially not compliant to verbal commands after he stopped.

The court of appeals examined the legal principles that are relevant to the issue of whether the officer violated the Fourth Amendment.  The court stated

The following factors guide this fact-intensive inquiry: (1) “the severity of the crime at issue,” (2) “whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others,” and (3) “whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.” Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396 (1989). We weigh the factors from “the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” Carrollv. Ellington, 800 F.3d 154, 173 (5th Cir. 2015) (quotation omitted). That is because “police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments- in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving.” Graham, 490 U.S. at 397. Finally, “we consider ‘the relationship between the need for force and the amount of force used.'” Betts, 22 F.4th at 582 (quoting Josephex rel. Estate of Joseph v. Bartlett, 981 F.3d 319, 332 (5th Cir. 2020)) (cleaned up).[iii]

The court then examined the factors from Graham above.  First, the court examined the severity of the crime at issue.  Ramirez was accused of driving under the influence and fleeing the police in a vehicle in a dangerous, high-speed chase.  The court of appeals noted that they have previously held that “fleeing by vehicle is a ‘purposeful, violent, and aggressive’ felony under Texas law.”[iv]  As such, the court of appeals held that the seriousness of the crime weighs in favor of the officer.

The court then set out to examine the second factor, specifically, whether Ramirez posed a threat to the safety of the officers or others.   Ramirez argued that no jury could believe that he posed a threat to the officers because at the time the force was used, he had surrendered and was compliant, kneeling on the ground.

The court of appeals noted that Ramirez’s conduct immediately before his “surrender” was relevant to the potential threat he posed.  The court stated

[W]e cannot ignore a suspect’s actions that immediately “preceded the surrender.” Salazar v. Molina, 37 F.4th 278, 282 (5th Cir. 2022). Such actions are pertinent because an officer need not take a suspect’s compliance at face value after the suspect just tried evading custody. See ibid. (concluding officers may reasonably question the sincerity of a suspect’s surrender who previously tried evading police). Thus, in Salazar v. Molina, we granted qualified immunity to an officer who tased a suspect who was already lying prone on the ground, because the “previously noncompliant suspect” still posed a threat to officers.  Id. at 283. We stated that “despite the appearance of an unambiguous surrender,” the “relevant inquiry is whether” a reasonable officer would “doubt the suspect’s compliance and still perceive a threat.”[v]

In Ramirez’s case, the court noted that his surrender came moments after he led police on a dangerous, high-speed chase where he stopped on an unlit street.  Additionally, he also initially failed to comply with verbal commands to stay in his vehicle and get on his knees.  In fact, one of the officers involved in the chase cautioned other officers that Ramirez’s “stop and go driving” may indicate he is trying to “bait” the officers.  The court also noted that Ramirez was visibly intoxicated and erratic in his behavior.  Additionally, Ramirez’s behavior made it impossible for officers to approach the vehicle and check for other passengers who may pose a threat.  Finally, the court noted that, in Deville v. Marcantel, they previously held that

Officers may consider a suspect’s refusal to comply with instructions during a traffic stop in assessing whether physical force is needed to effectuate the suspect’s compliance. [vi]

The court also noted that, once a suspect surrenders, officers must consider the surrender and reduce the amount of force they use with the suspect.  The court observed that that is just what Officer Martin did in Ramirez’s case.  Specifically, the court stated

Of course, once a suspect surrenders, “the degree of force an officer can employ is reduced.” Cooper, 844 F.3d at 524. But even assuming Ramirez legitimately intended to surrender, he cannot expect the “same Fourth Amendment protection from . . . force he would have received had he promptly surrendered in the first place.” Salazar, 37 F.4th at 282-83 (footnote omitted). What’s more, Martin ratcheted down his use of force to Ramirez’s then-current threat level. Rather than using even intermediate force, like a taser, Martin pushed Ramirez to the ground and then refrained from using additional force once Ramirez was subdued.[vii]

As such, the court of appeals held that Ramirez posed a threat to officers and this weighed in favor of the officer.

Lastly, the court examined the third factor from Graham, specifically whether Ramirez was actively resisting or attempting to evade arrest by flight.  The court stated

For the same reasons that Ramirez posed a threat, Martin could have been reasonably wary about whether Ramirez would remain compliant. Often, the signs a suspect is readying for a fight or preparing for flight are of the same stripe. See Escobarv. Montee, 895 F.3d 387, 396 (5th Cir. 2018) (“[T]he third Graham factor . . .largely folds into the second. If [the suspect] may have posed a threat, then he also might have attempted to flee.”).[viii]

The court reasoned that since Ramirez led police on a mile-and-a-half high-speed chase and then failed to follow orders to stay in his vehicle and failed to stay stationary on his knees, this gave the officers reason “to believe that Ramirez either intended to flee or that he posed a threat.”[ix]

Thus, the court held that the third factor weighed in favor of the officers.

Therefore, the court of appeals held that Officer Martin’s use of force, specifically, taking Ramirez’s arm and forcing him facedown on the ground, was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

Note:  Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions.  As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases.  This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.

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Citations

[i] No. 22-10011 (5th Cir. Decided October 31, 2022)

[ii] Id. at 1-3

[iii] Id. at 5 (emphasis added)

[iv] Id. at 6 (citing U.S. v. Harrimon, 568 F.3d 531, 534 (5th Cir. 2009))

[v] Id. at 6-7 (emphasis added)

[vi] Id. at 8 (quoting 567 F.3d 156, 167 (5th Cir. 2009))

[vii] Id. at 9 (emphasis added)

[viii] Id. at 9-10 (emphasis added)

[ix] Id. at 10

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